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LA Muslim group seeks to identify troubled youth, avert homegrown terrorism

A Los Angeles-based Muslim civil rights organization has proposed the first intervention program for young American Muslims who may be drawn to violent extremism. The initiative comes amid concerns that more American Muslims could become radicalized by events overseas.

“The propensity for it is higher now than before,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He cites the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, new bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “US policies that lead to the suffering of Muslims" as reasons.

The 2013 Boston bombing helped inspire the initiative. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, had shouted political rants at his mosque months before the attack.

“So they kicked him out because they didn't know what else to do with him,” said Al-Marayati. He wondered - what if mosque leaders had sought to steer Tsarnaev in another direction?

MPAC wants to provide the nation’s estimated 2,100 mosques with training and resources to help create an environment where Muslims feel free to discuss sensitive political topics. Many of these mosques are underfunded and led by foreign-born Imams unfamiliar with American culture, said Al-Marayati. “They need help dealing with young people.”

The program - named the Safe Spaces Initiative - would also seek to identify people who may be headed toward violent extremism. Often, people are driven by joblessness, depression or a sense of alienation, as much as ideology, according to Al-Marayati.

“We would have mental health experts, we would have religious counselors, we would have youth peers who could help the mosque with that individual,” he said.

The concept is based in part on gang intervention programs in Los Angeles. Al-Marayati consulted Father Greg Boyle who founded Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights. 

MPAC is applying for public and private grants to launch what it hopes will be a transformation in how American mosques deal with troubled members.

“I think its a long overdue initiative,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the department’s counterterrorism bureau. “I’m very excited about it.”

The LAPD monitors visits to radical websites. It's more common than you think, said Downing. “There are people pinging these sites every single day, and you’re wondering ‘are they being socialized into this violent ideology?’”

Still, the initiative has raised concerns among some in the American Muslim community, who say it plays into stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and could target political speech.

“If someone has a radical thought, are we are going to label them as violent,” asked Abdul Aleem, a Pakistani American who runs the website IslamiCity. “Anyone could become angry and say something they don’t mean.”

The concern reflects a commonly heard refrain among American Muslims - that radicalization is extremely rare and their community represents far less of a threat than white supremacist or other violent fringe groups.

“I am of the opinion there is no problem,” said Syed Shakeel, executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California. The group is a coalition of more than 100 mosques and Muslim organizations. ”The problem is being manufactured.”

But high profiles cases have grabbed the attention of the American public - from the Boston Bomber to the Riverside man who became an al-Qaeda spokesman and the San Diego convert to Islam who was recently reported as killed fighting for ISIS.

According to Senior Rand Researcher Brian Jenkins, about 200 people have been prosecuted since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks for what he calls “Jihadist” related activity. That’s still a “very small number,” said Jenkins, who has published numerous papers on Al-Qaeda and the threat of terrorism.

“Despite the intensive online sales campaign by al-Qaeda and these other extremist groups... they’re simply not selling,” Jenkins told KPCC. He noted the problem of radicalization is greater in Europe, where Muslims are less integrated into societies.

For Aleem, surveillance by law enforcement is a bigger concern than radicalization. “It's a weariness, I think, in terms of the surveillance,” says Aleem.

Al-Marayati defends his Safe Spaces mosque-based initiative, pointing out that if fellow Muslims were more involved identifying would-be terrorists, it could prompt police and the FBI to back off. “We think it will push surveillance out, or at least minimize the use of surveillance.”

The initiative envisions a partnership with police, including special training for officers and empowerment of Muslim leaders to decide when to alert law enforcement.

“There is this gray area,” Al-Marayati concedes. “At what point do you call law enforcement, and we’re giving that authority to the mosque leadership.”

This is where Al-Maryati and the LAPD’s Downing disagree. “I’m not going to be Pollyanna about this,” said the deputy chief.

Police aren’t ready to rely solely on mosque leadership to decide who might be dangerous, Downing said. “If we have a reasonable suspicion of a criminal predicate, there are strategies we use to investigate that case. It may be surveillance.”

The FBI wouldn’t  comment directly on the Safe Spaces initiative. It issued a statement that it’s willing to “listen to new ideas.”

At the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, hundreds of Muslims gather for prayers on a recent Friday afternoon. Semir Ibrahim said he’s seen the websites beckoning American Muslims.

“I heard some Youtube lectures,” Ibrahim said. “I kinda of don’t like their ideas of trying to push people into radicalization.”

Ibrahim, 31, immigrated from Ethiopia a decade ago. He’s an American citizen now, and works as an auditor for the State Franchise Tax Board. He said he sometimes warns friends about radical online prophets. Online comment sections are helpful too, according to Ibrahim .

“A lot of muslims go on there and say ‘no this guy is wrong,’” Ibrahim explained. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Self-policing happens a lot, according to Al-Marayati. But he says it isn’t enough. He believes American Muslim leaders need a more organized approach to addressing the threat of radicalization.

“We can’t fool ourselves and think it won’t encroach on our mosques,” he says. “You’re dealing at this point in a battle of ideas.”

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